« Chapter 1: About This Book - part 4 | Main | Chapter 1: About This Book - part 6 »

March 03, 2003

Chapter 1: About This Book - part 5

II. Goals (Continued)

(3) Promote youth-led activism within the Children's Rights movement.
Adopting an oppression / liberation framework forces well-intentioned adults to reevaluate their role in protecting youths' well being.

The traditional model of child rights / welfare / protection pits "good" adults against "bad" ones (who are abusive, neglectful, or incompetent), or against simple accidents of circumstance -- such as poverty, hunger, or lack of resources. Young people's role in this model is essentially passive: harm is defined by an adult-run organization; intervention is set in motion when some other adults identify a problem situation; and the ultimate outcome is determined by an adult service provider -- or by resolving a conflict between the agency and a youth's parents. If the youth's input is solicited at all, it is simply to confirm what the adults already believe is the case.

Within the oppression / liberation framework, this exclusion of youth is seen as oppressive in itself, and thus unethical. "Oppression" is primarily defined by the power and control that one group wields over another; strong emphasis is put on examining who holds final decision-making power. Ethically speaking, if something's going to affect a youth, the youth must have a say. **Excluding youth from a decision-making process that affects them is an act of oppression.** This remains so regardless of how well-intentioned an adult is, or how positive the outcome they engineer; regardless of whether the exclusion was intentional or just an oversight.

This is not to suggest that all existing child welfare / protection efforts are entirely without value. There are *some* roles that adults can play independently and still be considered ethical. Generally a blanket, or a belly full of food, or an escape route out of immediate danger is a positive thing -- no matter where it comes from. However, this is most true when suffering is extreme and clear-cut. Unilateral provision of "help" is not designed to address more subtle social dynamics between youth and adults. Adults don't necessarily know what feels most important to youth. They can fail to perceive attacks on young people's dignity, or not address these issues as aggressively as the ones that seem significant to *them*.

Because youth and adults have different standpoints in society, there is potential for a conflict of interests. For instance, adults have made child abuse a criminal act -- but spanking / physical disciplining a child or teen is legally protected. Adults, even those actively working for youths' welfare, have a vested interest in maintaining control over the young people in their lives. The right to inflict pain is a tool that can be used to that end. Youth, by contrast, are in a position to argue that corporal punishment and child abuse are both forms of assault, and that these acts should not be condoned, regardless of the victim's age.

Youth Liberation suggests that in order to be non-oppressive and avoid conflicts of interest, groups claiming to act on behalf of youth must actively involve youth in steering their organizations' work. It does not stop there, though. Youth Liberation further argues that youth should have ultimate power in such organizations, and that adults should play a subordinate role, limited to supporting the leadership decisions of the youth. In essence, this is about the *means* matching the *ends*. If the core issue behind young people's oppression is exclusive adult control, then the solution to this problem must involve youth being in control of the effort to make change.

Simply involving youth more in organizational planning has substantial benefits -- even without the further step of reversing power roles. Youth have insider knowledge. They, better than anyone else, understand the realities of their problems: only they experience them first hand. Studying youth from afar or trying to look at the world from their standpoint can be useful; but inevitably there are aspects of the real experience that could not be predicted by an outsider. Youth can identify problems that adults were unaware of, and ways in which service programs are failing to connect with their intended audience.

Direct participation of youth in children's rights, welfare, and protection work also gives these endeavors a greater appearance of legitimacy. If youth are permitted to speak for themselves and they bless the project, that says more than any number of adult endorsements could. The trick of it is that in soliciting youth input, you might discover that they're *not* entirely satisfied -- which would commit you to having to change how the organization currently operates, which may be very difficult indeed.

For adults to take that additional step, of becoming the servants of youth leadership, requires a major change of perspective. It requires well-intentioned adults to see themselves as part of the problem.

All adults are members of the oppressor group. This is not to say that they are bad persons, but rather that they personally benefit from their position in a legal and social structure. It's not something to feel guilty or ashamed about. You're not responsible for having created the situation; but as a beneficiary, you are responsible for helping to change it. There's no way to simply wash your hands; you can't voluntarily revoke the privilege you've been given. What you can do is strive to be an ally to youth in their own efforts to become free. [Whether you succeed or not in this aim is for them to decide.]

The ideal Youth Liberation organization would be fully separatist, run by youth with no adult participation whatsoever. In reality however, the benefits of limited adult involvement usually outweighs the problems: adults can teach the tools of activism; they can supply meeting space, labor and financial / material resources; and they can lend credibility when adult authorities are disinclined to listen to youth alone.

But the problems involved are also significant. Foremost is the fact that adults are so used to being in charge that they tend to take over. When youth and adults sit in a circle, the adults monopolize the conversation: they speak longer and more often than the youth; they speak and respond to each other instead of to the whole group; and they steamroll the youths' opinions, or fail to even hear and remember what they've said -- they don't pay attention.

For these reasons, it is important in Youth Liberation organizations to put explicit limits on adult participation. Adults may be prohibited from voting; they may only be allowed to speak a certain number of times during the meeting; there may be a period at the end of the meeting when only youth get to speak, and they discuss moments in the conversation that "stung", so the adults can learn.

**Adults must learn how to invite and receive criticism from youth.** This is the foundation of being a good ally, of improving existing youth rights / welfare / protection agencies, and -- in the broadest sense -- making society a more positive place for youth.

On a personal level, you have to disinvest yourself from always being right. It's easy to feel like you're a good person because you "never" (seldom) hurt anyone. But that idea can lead to a defensiveness that makes youth feel unsafe to criticize you. Criticism is how you learn. It is a gift to receive criticism from an oppressed person; it takes courage on their part to risk telling you how your actions affected them. Shift your self-esteem over to how you respond *after* doing harm. Instead of being the person who never does wrong, be the person who welcomes becoming more self-aware of their actions. Find pride in being the person who follows through and keeps their word when they say they'll change.

The more that adults adopt this attitude -- of being *accountable to* youth instead of *responsible for* youth -- the better society will become. To improve, organizations and communities must open themselves up to learning when something is wrong. That means opening up the floodgates to youth criticism. Only when youth have a voice, welcomed and heard --in *everything* that affects them -- will ending their oppression become a real possibility.

-- to be continued --

March 3, 2003

Posted by Sven at March 3, 2003 05:35 PM